Posts Tagged ‘Gormenghast’

I read Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy only about three years ago and enjoyed it very much – even the lesser, third book. The first two books, Titus Groan and Gormenghast form a kind of duology charting the birth and childhood of the 77th earl, Titus Groan, and the rise and downfall of the scheming murderer, Steerpike; they are written in a dark, baroque style and the castle that is the setting – Gormenghast – is as important a presence as any of the main characters. In Titus Alone, Titus has left Gormenghast and has adventures in new lands; this novel is not as well written as the earlier two and suffers greatly from the absence of the crumbling magnificence of the castle – and Titus himself is the least interesting of the characters from his home.

The third book was written while Mervyn Peake’s health declined and, although he lived for another nine years after its publication, Parkinson’s disease took away his ability to write a planned fourth book (and a fifth, sixth and seventh, perhaps – the whole series was meant to chronicle Titus’s entire life) in the series. Using a few pages and lists of ideas that her husband wrote for the fourth book – to be called Titus Awakes – Maeve Gilmore wrote her own conclusion to the series during the 1970s, which she entitled Search Without End. She didn’t attempt to have it published and she died in 1983. For last year’s centenary of Peake’s birth, the couple’s children decided that it should be brought to the public.

Like Titus Alone, Titus Awakes sees Titus travel through foreign lands; Gormenghast and its denizens are absent, apart from the first, brief chapter – one of two written by Peake himself. Gilmore’s writing doesn’t have anywhere near the beauty and density of the first two books, nor even of the third book, but it has a certain gentle melancholy that entirely suits the novel. In fact, there is a noticeable modulation of the style – the first half of the book is reminiscent of Peake’s style and the narrative is more dream-like as Titus wanders here and there and has various disjointed encounters; the second half is more relaxed in style, simpler and more realistic, and the story become a little more linear and driven by a motive.

While the first two books had fantasy overtones with the castle and its ceremonies and feudal hierarchy, and the third had science fiction elements, this volume feels more connected to our own world – especially at the end, where the link is quite deliberate. I wish I’d read the introduction by Brian Sibley beforehand – but I elected not to because it declared that it gave away elements of the plot. These elements are really key to understanding it however, and I’m going to mention them in the very next paragraph.

Not only does the story become more grounded in a reality that resembles our own as it progresses, but it becomes interlinked to the story of Peake’s own life. It is not made explicit in the text and I only realised this through reading the introduction, but Titus encounters an intense man, an artist suffering from a mentally or psychologically debilitating illness – and this mysterious man represents Peake himself. After a second encounter, Titus resolves to look for him and finds him, apparently healthy, on a small island with his children. The Peake character is travelling backwards through time, getting healthier. The island is Sark, where Peake and his family lived. Without knowing this, the very end of the story is inconclusive; this knowledge makes it much more satisfying and moving.

Titus Awakes, then, is not perfect, and won’t be to the taste of everyone who enjoyed the first two books, but it brings a much-needed sense of closure to the overall story and is an interesting and touching book all by itself.

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